I'm in my Halloween costume already--suspenders, straw hat, plaid and jeans as the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. Just spent the past hour trouncing around the house with a trail of little straw flakes billowing out behind me. It's been a joyful kind of week, month really, with the upcoming election and the brilliance of San Francisco autumn.
It's funny how the starkest of realities bring us back down to earth just as we are the most oblivious. I get frustrated when my blood sugar wakes me up in the early morning, or when the copier breaks down at work, and then I learn about frighteningly real tragedies like the death of my former classmate Jake Thorn.
I met Jake as a sophomore at UCSB--2004, shortly before the last presidential election. The campus was full of a palpable electricity: students were mobilizing, registering voters and protesting the ongoing war in Iraq. We wanted Bush out. My second week back at school, I joined the Campus Democrats club. Immediately we were put to work: flyering freshman dorms with voter registration information, canvassing for the local supervisor race (I had a John Buttny sticker on my bike basket for the duration of the election, until he lost to the beer-brewing, father-of-"The-Bachelor" Firestone), tabling on the quad. Jake was one of the first fellow volunteers I met.
Jake epitomized the kind of friend you never quite have the time for, but always admired and wanted to actually know. He was thin, and smiley, with reddish hair, and a penchant for Amnesty International and equal-opportunity education. He wrote well. I remember him editing the club newsletter (it had a "donkey" theme) with a girl who later became my housemate here in San Francisco. He was one of those community members who you could count on to have an editorial in the paper at least once a week.
Throughout my time at UCSB, Jake's interests and passions often criss-crossed my own, whether it be voter registration, a local nonprofit we tried to start called Free Skool, the underground belly that was co-op culture and independent music.
All of these characteristics and memories slide into view now, two years later, when all I know of him are a list of hobbies and interests from his Facebook profile and a half dozen digital photographs from community events. I can't claim to have known him intimately or even well; he was one of many classmates who accomplished great things and had plans to accomplish even more.
I heard from him for the first time since graduation when he posted a note online about his May 2008 lymphoma diagnosis, a startling and fast-moving disease. Suddenly he was bald, suddenly he was excited about popsicles and writing songs about doomed youth. It wasn't until today, the day he passed away, that I noticed a small link on his webpage advertising his music:
There are few things more chilling than hearing someone's recorded voice shortly after they have died. I can only imagine what this must mean to his family and close friends, and the people who mattered the most to him. His voice sounds fragile at first, but then I recognize the quality of sound not as a weakness, but rather an informed complacency. He knows what is happening to his body, just as he knows which politicians are screwing up the country, and which animals are being mistreated. He knows, he knew, he always will know.
Perhaps the greatest pity in all this is how much he wanted to see next week's election. I remember the fervency with which he followed politics, and the idealistic hunger that pushed him forward. What's more tragic, I wonder: that so few people can maintain this intellectual idealism, or that those who do are often prevented from creating change?
Yet another reason to vote--vote for progressive change, and you'll be voting for Jake Thorn.
May 11, 1985--October 30, 2008